Prom 13: Shepherd, Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich from Gergiev/NYO USA

BBC Proms 2013
Perhaps the most memorable Youth Orchestra appearance at the Proms was in 2007, when the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela burst onto the scene. Although the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America certainly rivalled them in the outfit stakes (the orchestra opted for a blazer and tie on top of red jeans and blue trainers covered with white stars), they failed to make the same impression as the Venezuelans.
Last night’s Prom was the final date of the NYO USA’s inaugural tour. Following an intensive two-week training programme, the orchestra plunged straight into a five-date tour taking them from the USA to London via Russia.
The NYO USA’s 2013 season was led by Valery Gergiev, and the orchestra’s programme celebrated this Russian connection. Inspired by Russian overtures, American composer Sean Shepherd’s work Magiya (BBC co-commission with the Carnegie Hall) was first on the programme. The effervescent concert-opener saw a four-note motif thrown between the different sections, demonstrating the players’ technical capacities. Although perhaps not exploring the material to its fullest potential, Shepherd’s piece allowed the NYO USA to display a wide spectrum of musical colour. Lyrical string ideas were interrupted by unapologetic brass and scuttling percussion, but the dialogue between the different sections didn’t seem to emerge into the expected climax.
Joshua Bell joined the orchestra for Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto. In such a piece a degree of rubato is to be expected, but at times Bell seemed to pull the piece about a bit too much and interrupt its flow. However, this created an air of freshness over which the virtuosic passagework gained a more expressive aspect. Even in the Royal Albert Hall’s cavernous acoustics, Bell managed to lend the Canzonetta a sense of intimacy, giving it the feel of a serenade. The speed at which the third movement was taken bordered on the precipitous, with some of Bell’s frenetic passagework suffering slightly from some extra-terrestrial bow noise. However, the combination of his swagger and the heart-in-mouth interpretation meant that this could be overlooked. The NYO USA clung on for the ride, with Bell and Gergiev driving the music on to its triumphant conclusion. Although the orchestra shone in Tchaikovsky’s big tunes, for the most part they seemed rather meek and tentative in their accompaniment. Bell’s encore of more Tchaikovsky allowed him to indulge in more soaring melodies, while giving the NYO USA strings more stage time.
The NYO USA’s hesitancy remained a problem in Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10 after the interval. The orchestra seemed to lack confidence, following Gergiev but not adding the extra je ne sais quoi into the music. This was understandable given the ensemble’s youth, but gave the performance a strangely functional air. The conductor encouraged syrupy, long-breathed lines from the orchestra throughout the first movement, but this often sapped the sense of direction and created a sense of sluggishness which even the fiery second movement could not dispel. Gergiev’s focus upon musical line paid off in the third movement, creating an eerily still nocturnal landscape. The strings lacked the intensity of sound required for the expectant Andante at the start of the fourth movement, although the jubilant Allegro allowed members of the NYO USA woodwind to shine. Particular mention must go to the principal clarinet, excellent throughout, and the piccolo (effortless at the end of the first movement).
Ultimately, the orchestra lacked the conviction needed to pull the Shostakovich off. As their confidence grows, they will undoubtedly supplement their strong technical foundation with more individuality.

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A celebration of strings: Mandolinist Avi Avital joins members of the Oxford Philomusica

Avi Avital
Oxford becomes much quieter outside of the university terms, and this was reflected in audience numbers for Saturday’s concert. Although the evening did not pan out as expected, those who were in the Sheldonian still came away having heard some brilliant performances.

Read my full review at Bachtrack.